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Vacuum Cleaners, Yoga, and Keeping Inmates Sane

Whatever the method, it’s in everyone’s best interest.
Captive being escorted at Guantanamo Bay. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Captive being escorted at Guantanamo Bay. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

An Associated Press exclusive on Thursday added intriguing new insights into the CIA’s dealings with 9-11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. After extensive and harsh interrogations in a facility in Poland, during which CIA officials seemed to exhaust Mohammed’s knowledge of terror plots past and future, interrogators had to figure out what to do with him. Mohammed may have to stand trial someday, and for that, they realized, he would have to be sane. So, according to the AP, citing anonymous officials, they indulged his expertise in mechanical engineering and let him design a vacuum cleaner.

It’s a quirky story, one that’s inspired comparisons to Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, which features a vacuum-salesman-turned-spy in Cuba. But of course it also points to a larger and more disturbing truth. Whatever your views of torture as a method for interrogation, it’s indisputable that you can’t keep someone awake for 180 hours and waterboard them 183 times and not expect them to be psychologically damaged. From the AP story:

By the CIA's own account, the program's methods were "designed to psychologically 'dislocate'" people. But once interrogations stopped, the agency had to try to undo the psychological damage inflicted on the detainees.

The CIA apparently succeeded in keeping Mohammed sane. He appears to be in good health, according to military records.

Others haven't fared as well. Accused al-Qaida terrorists Ramzi Binalshibh and Abd al-Nashiri, who were also locked up in Poland and Romania with Mohammed, have had mental issues. Al-Nashiri suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Binalshibh is being treated for schizophrenia with a slew of anti-psychotic medications.

"Any type of prolonged isolation in custody — much less the settings described in the press — have been known to have a severe impact on the mental condition of the detainee," said Thomas Durkin, Binalshibh's former civilian lawyer.

This is true to some extent of all long-term detention, even when torture and interrogation are not involved, and even under conditions much less harsh than those at Guantanamo Bay. This week, as I have previously written about here, thousands of prison inmates are in the early days of what may be the largest hunger strike in California’s history to demand, among other things, pens, paper, and wall calendars for their cells, and the ability to exchange photographs with their families. These are all things we take for granted in our everyday lives; but for these prisoners, these small comforts can go a long way toward keeping them on the right side of sanity.

It’s not just about the psychological damage that inhumane conditions bring these men and women while they’re inside prison walls. If the inmates are ever expected to be released after they’ve served their time, how does it benefit society to send them back out into the world so broken?

As state budgets shrink and prison populations grow, corrections facilities shouldn’t hide behind arguments about the potential expense of these programs, either. Rehabilitation methods can be incredibly inexpensive and easy to incorporate into daily prison life. For instance, a new study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that a simple yoga course—just 90 minutes a week for 10 weeks—had a positive impact on prisoners’ mental health and their ability to check negative impulses.

Prisoners who completed the course “reported improved mood, reduced stress and were better at a task related to behavior control than those who continued in their normal prison routine,” according to the University of Oxford, whose researchers worked alongside a prison-yoga program called the Prison Phoenix Trust.

In prison populations, anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior is often the norm; yoga exercises and the meditation techniques that accompany them may be able to help mitigate all of these. The implications for recidivism are clear.

Dr. Amy Bilderbeck of Oxford offered the caveat that, obviously, yoga will never be a cure-all. Says Bilderbeck:

We're not saying that organizing a weekly yoga session in a prison is going to suddenly turn prisons into calm and serene places, stop all aggression and reduce reoffending rates. We're not saying that yoga will replace standard treatment of mental health conditions in prison. But what we do see are indications that this relatively cheap, simple option might have multiple benefits for prisoners' wellbeing and possibly aid in managing the burden of mental health problems in prisons.

Whatever the method may be—whether it be handing out art supplies, or doing weekly guided stretching and meditation, or, sure, allowing vacuum cleaner construction—keeping prisoners sane while they’re locked up can be inexpensive and simple. And it is absolutely vital to their lives beyond bars.